Researchers patch hearts to improve their function

6th April 2017

Researchers in Japan have been patching people’s hearts with cells grown from their own thigh muscles to try to improve their heart function.

The team harvested the tissue from 27 people with mild to moderate heart failure symptoms, grew cells from them in a laboratory and then put them back onto their hearts during surgery.

They were investigating the safety and ease of doing the procedure, but say they found that a year after the surgery some patients had improvements in their heart function and ability to exercise.

The study was reported by Dr Yoshiki Sawa, from the Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine, and colleagues in the Journal of the American Heart Association. He said further and larger studies now needed to be done to see if the procedure could really help people with heart failure.

The researchers grew the extracted cells in culture, testing for the presence of skeletal muscle stem cells in the mix. Then they grew the cultured cells into small, thin sheets.

None of the patients showed complications related to the surgery, the researchers reported.

The team said that in some previous studies, when stem cells were injected into the heart rather than applied as a patch, some patients developed dangerous heart rhythms. In the new study, three patients had irregular heart rhythms after the new cells were implanted, but those rhythms were not life threatening and were present before their surgeries.

A year after surgery, 96 per cent of patients were alive. About 84 per cent were alive three years after surgery.

Those with heart failure caused by coronary artery disease improved to a greater degree than those with dilated cardiomyopathy, the team said. All were still taking medications for their heart failure.

Dr Eiran Gorodeski, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic and an expert on heart failure, said: "It’s hard to know without a control group if the cells are why these patients got better. For now, treatment with stem cells remain firmly in the experimental realm. There are intriguing and early signals that they may work, but we don’t have a slam dunk yet."